The idea of democracy, as we know it, stems from the success of the Roman Republic. It was the history of the republic which inspired the founding fathers of the United States and democracies which followed. Ironically, the divisiveness, the pandering of partisan politics which catalysed its collapse is inspiring demagogues in democracies.
Around 82 BC, in the run up to the collapse of the Roman Republic, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, Consul and General, recruited a private army, promising the hapless and poor enrichment, and waged war on Rome. Backed by the army, Sulla forced the Senate to ignore the constitution, bypass the checks and balances and installed himself as the dictator of Rome — the bundle of rods called fasces used by his personal guards paved the etymology of the phrase ‘fascism’. It was the beginning of the end!
On Wednesday, Donald J Trump presented to Americans and the world at large, verily in the form of a live reality show, an idea of what delusional doctrinaire and demagoguery can ‘accomplish’ within hours. To paraphrase the words of the Bard, Trump knew that the people would willingly believe what they wished for. The images of indoctrinated men whom Trump promised a voice walking away with the Speaker’s lectern, struck terror among the elected and the electors.
The shattering of glass in the chambers at the Capitol symbolised the fragility and vulnerability of democracy when faced with mobocracy. The riveting image of protesters posing inside the chambers under the emblematic motto of the US, ‘E Pluribus Unum’ which is Latin for ‘out of the many, one’, symbolised the upending of the essence of democracy.
The spectacle triggered schadenfreude across the world — curiously, even some Trump wannabes and acolytes on the British Isles, expressed concern!
One viral WhatsApp forward, illustrating ire at the history of regime changes engineered by the US, summed up the third world view: ‘Due to Covid19 travel restrictions this year, the US had to organise a coup at home’.
Commentators struggled to define the moment before arriving at a consensus to characterise it as an ‘insurrection’. The moment though was long coming. Ergo, the consensus opinion of the events has been ‘shocking but not surprising’. There is talk about who caused it, a possible second impeachment in the coming week but scant attention to the why.
Donald J Trump presented the embodiment of WYSIWYG — What You See Is What You Get. From the ugly expression of his charm before his election to the weaponisation of words through his tenure, Trumpism found subscription, faith and over 74 million voters.
This week, it was fashionable for Retrumplicans — who funded his campaign and hung on to his words and coat-tails to bask in prominence — to jump off the ship. It is as if the words and deeds which preceded Wednesday, from demanding personal loyalty to finding votes, were kosher, as if they were compelled to await the worst. Such is the convenience of conviction.
Fact is Trump, and Trumpism, represent a world view — spanning a range of dilemmas ranging from personal to political to geopolitical. This week, tech giants suspended his social media accounts. But it is not an accident that a man who on Friday could not be trusted with 140 characters was entrusted by the people with access to the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.
Thee rise of Trumpism represents a visceral reaction to the intellectual lethargy, even hypocrisy of the entrenched and entitled. Yes it illustrates the immense power of bigotry, a latent lust for the hegemony of homogeneity of ideology and identity.
More critically, Trumpism illuminates the fault lines and failings of representative democracy across the world. In the new millennium, the rising tide of disruptions triggered the age of discord, aggravated grievances and victimhood.
The grief of those in the dust bowls in India or the rust belt of America is about being driven to penury, but more so about not being even heard. The spectre could darken further as climate change triggers internal and international migration, as digitisation displaces employment.
The practice of democracy entails consensual compromise on competing contradictions so as to preserve order to move ahead, but the space for dialogue has shrunk as leaders paint dissent as villainy and social media algorithms serenade conversations into cocoons of groupthink.
The inadequacies of democratic systems to address inequities, the rise of the few at the cost of the many, the inequality of opportunity and wealth is fuelling normalisation of the seductive idea of the suzerainty of an individual over sovereign institutions.
German historian Oswald Spengler said rather succinctly “democracy becomes its own destroyer, after money has destroyed intellect”. The cartelisation of opinion and centralisation of power eventually morphs into mobocracy.
In the best of times, democracy is a complex experiment in controlled conditions. What is transpiring in the oldest democracy, and the world’s richest nation, has salutary lessons for democracies across the world.
Author of The Gated Republic, Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution, and Accidental India email@example.com